Support staff pay docked after contract changes

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A lump sum will be taken out of Colchester School District support staff paychecks early next year, settling a discrepancy between a raise applied during negotiation proceedings and the recently agreed upon hourly rate for the 2017-18 term, the school board confirmed last week.

Support staff received a “step increase,” or yearly salary raise, of about 60 cents an hour when their 2016-17 contract expired on June 30 and contract negotiations were still ongoing.

But the new 2017-18 contract, ratified just last month, ultimately provided for only a 44-cent raise and has a retroactive start date of July 1, according to board vice-chairman Lincoln White.

“To honor the terms of the contract, the staff must return any overpayment to the district,” White wrote in a statement. “The largest individual overpayment was $126, the lowest was $20 and most were under $100.”

Patty Ward, a Colchester Middle School employee and member of the Colchester Education Association support staff negotiations team, read a statement at the Nov. 7 school board meeting, asking members to reconsider taking back the accrued money later this month, as was originally anticipated.

“I’m asking you to reconsider who this decision will affect,” Ward said. “It not only affects the staff, it affects the district because many support staff are currently looking for and have found other jobs … It affects the administration because staff members are feeling undervalued, and morale is at its worst.”

Ward also noted the district’s paraeducator shortage, saying the unfilled positions mean teachers bear more of a burden in their classrooms. Seven Colchester paraeducator positions were advertised on the education job search board SchoolSpring as of press time.

“[It affects] the student that doesn’t get the help they need or keep the relationships that they have built, because the person they worked with isn’t financially able to stay in this district,” Ward said of staff turnover. “It wasn’t their fault, and they shouldn’t be paying the consequences.”

The board entered executive session to discuss the matter at the meeting’s conclusion and later unanimously voted to honor the existing contract agreement but delay the salary adjustment until next February.

White later said the board discussed different possibilities to remedy the situation but remained convinced this was the clear course forward.

“We have incredible support staff and want to do everything we can to support them,” White wrote. “But it was very clear that for many reasons we have to honor the new contract and adjust a future paycheck to settle any over payment. We are going to work with the support staff to make this adjustment after the holidays.”

Ward said the decision to remove the money in a lump sum prompted anxiety among staff — worries that weren’t assuaged by the move to 2018.

“I am extremely disappointed in the decision,” Ward wrote in a subsequent email. “Allowing support staff to keep money that was already paid to them is a small, relatively inexpensive thing for the district to do. It could have gone a long way toward restoring the faith that our support staff want to have in this district.

“[Waiting until February] has brought on even more concerns, especially about income taxes and filing,” Ward continued. “I hope that the next contract can address this issue in order to avoid it in the future.”

In open session, White asked Ward whether she would prefer the district refrain from applying raises based on an estimate. Ward said she had requested that policy but was told it was not legally permissible.

Support staff are currently operating under a one-year contract that will again expire on June 30.